Death of Japanese Science Teacher Who Handled Asbestos Recognised as Work-Related

Picture credit: Chrysotile, a type of asbestos also known as “white asbestos,” is seen in the image below from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan.

OSAKA – The death of a school science teacher who developed cancer after handling asbestos while preparing for classroom science experiments has been recognised as a work-related accident under the compensation system for local government employees.

Hideo Sando died at the age of 69 after developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer related to asbestos. Asbestos was formerly used in lab equipment, and it is believed the teacher inhaled scattered asbestos dust. It is uncommon for work-related accident recognition to be granted for teachers over asbestos exposure. One expert, however, says this case may be just the tip of the iceberg.

He Frequently Cut Open Asbestos Wicks of Alcohol Lamps
Sando, who worked at a municipal elementary school in the western Japan city of Wakayama, taught mainly children in the higher grades from 1977 to 2013. He developed mesothelioma in 2021, and his doctors told him it was caused by asbestos. He applied for work-related accident recognition from the Fund for Local Government Employees’ Accident Compensation, but passed away in April 2022. His wife was given notice of the recognition in January 2024.

In his application to the fund, Sando explained, “In preparation for science classes, I cut open the top of alcohol lamps’ asbestos wicks so they would burn easily. I also cleaned up the dust that was scattered from the lamps. At the time, I was unaware of the carcinogenic properties of asbestos and was completely unprotected.” Wire meshing where lamp-heated beakers were placed was also covered with asbestos for fire resistance.

Asbestos has long been used in lamp wicks, and asbestos wicks are known to produce dust when cut. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare banned the manufacturing and use of asbestos in principle in 2004, and Japanese-made laboratory equipment currently does not contain asbestos.

The teacher’s wife commented, “He had never been sick before, so when I heard the diagnosis, I couldn’t believe it.”

Expert Suggests Case Could be Tip of Iceberg
This is the 10th case of an asbestos-related workplace accident to surface among teachers in Japan. Recognition has previously been granted for university faculty members and others due to the spread of asbestos contained in laboratory equipment. However, a survey by the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency found that 242 mesothelioma patients certified under the Act on Asbestos Health Damage Relief, which provides medical expenses and other benefits to those not covered by workers’ compensation, had worked as teachers.

Yuji Natori, head of the Tokyo-based Asbestos Center, said that the latest case could be the “tip of the iceberg”. He commented, “The number of teachers recognised for work-related accidents due to asbestos exposure is extremely low, at around 10 people. There’ve been many cases where people received work-related accident certification after being in buildings sprayed with asbestos, but unless there are special circumstances, teachers are not recognised as having suffered accidents in their duties. The screening process is too strict and needs to be improved.”

(from a Japanese original by Hidetoshi Oshima, Osaka Editorial Division)

Source: Mainichi Japan, 19 February 2024